CPSC Takes Action Against Magnet Toy Maker After Child Dies

Thank you to Nancy Cowles, Executive Director of Kids in Danger, for this guest post.

You may have heard or seen on the news or social media about the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suing the makers of Buckyballs to stop sale of these magnetic desk toys.  This might seem like an abrupt or overreaching effort by this small government agency, but if we take a look at the background and the hazards of these tiny powerful magnets, it will start to make sense.

Before a young boy named Kenny died in Washington State in 2005, no one thought about the dangers of small magnets toy makers had put them in a variety of construction toys and play sets for children as young as four.  Kenny’s older sisters and brothers had one of those construction sets and unbeknownst to them, the tiny magnets were falling out and onto the carpeted floor. Kenny, a curious toddler, picked up the tiny magnets no one else saw and ate them.  Over time, they connected in his intestines, tightly squeezing the tissue between them and causing necrosis and blockage of his intestines.  He died in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day.  After his death, more horrific stories came to light, although thankfully, no other deaths.  As a result, toymakers changed the voluntary toy standard to prohibit the use of small magnets or magnetic parts in toys for children under 14: that standard became mandatory in 2009.

Even after the standard change, the manufacturers of Buckyballs, Maxfield and Oberton, incorrectly labeled their previously non-age graded toy, Buckyballs, for ages 13+. They had to recall those Buckballs and re-label with a 14+ label to meet the standard.  However, the company did little to change how the desk toys were sold—continuing to offer them in stores whose clientele were younger than 14.  Other similar products were sold as well, although Buckyballs had the largest market share.

CPSC persuaded Buckyballs and others to add warnings and issued a general warning themselves—but the injuries kept coming.  A recent analysis of the data from CPSC by Kids In Danger (KID) found that from January 2010 through April 18, 2012, CPSC documentation showed 62 incidents involving magnets and children.  Forty percent of those children required surgery while an additional 20% received some type of hospital or doctor’s office based care.  The BB-style magnets such as Buckyballs accounted for 61% of those incidents.  With the BB-style magnets, 45% of children required surgery compared to 34% of non-BB-style magnets.

Doctors associated with the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHN) were among the first to raise the alarm based on what they were seeing in their patients.  In a recent joint press release with KID and Consumer Federation of America, they stated, “many of our member physicians have spent hours removing these high powered neodymium magnets from the stomach of innocent infants and children to reduce the risk of abdominal surgery.  In spite of warnings by companies, there is no effective way to keep these tiny, shiny “adult toys” out of the reach of children.  If they stay on the market, infants and children will continue to swallow these magnets, and intestinal damage requiring surgery will continue to occur.”

In spite of this evidence, Maxfield and Oberton refused to take any further action leaving CPSC to take a step they haven’t taken in 11 years —suing to get a company to recall a product.

Consider this:

·    Age grading is just a guide, just a label on a box. Unlike cigarettes, for example, age grading does not require the retailer to check the age of the person buying the product and not sell to those under 14.

·    The Maxfield and Oberton warning is weak. It fails to alert parents and children to the seriousness of the injuries if multiple magnets are swallowed.

·     The injury hazard in magnets is non-intuitive. The usual course of action for children swallowing objects is to allow them to pass through the system. Waiting any time at all with these magnets can lead to serious injury and death.

·     Emergency room doctors have compared the way these powerful magnets crush and rip through intestines to the damage they see from bullet shots

·     Magnets are not objects that only appeal to very young children for whom the small parts test is applied. Many of those injured are older children or young teens who use the strong magnets to mimic piercings.  The unanticipated movement of magnetic objects causes them to be swallowed or inhaled. They are unlikely to immediately report this to parents since the object causes no discomfort while being swallowed.

So what can you do to protect children in your care?

·    First, educate yourself and others. The CPSC has put up a Magnet Information Center with information on the hazards, recalls and most importantly for parents of older children and teens – a video aimed at their age group explaining the horrific injuries and risk of ingesting magnets.

·    Check the products you have at home for recalled magnetic toys and games. The tiny magnets can fall out unnoticed and be ingested by a child. These aren’t the refrigerator letters or horseshoe magnets of our childhood—the tiny powerful ‘rare earth’ magnets can connect through tissue and cause damage in a very short time.  It has been reported that in some cases, they have torn through a child’s earlobe when used to mimic earrings.

·    If your child spends time at child care, school or other homes, discuss the issue with teachers or parents.  Many of the reported incidents occur when children encounter magnets outside the home.

·    If you suspect a child or teen has ingested or inhaled magnets, go to the emergency room immediately and tell the doctors that magnets might be involved.  An MRI is sometimes used for stomach distress and could be dangerous with swallowed magnets.

·    Most importantly, speak up when others attempt to minimize the risk. While the chance of any one child being injured in this way may seem small, the lifelong health issues, invasive surgery and possibility of death aren’t worth the risk. Just ask Kenny’s mother.

The suit by CPSC was taken to address a serious risk of harm. It will not ‘outlaw’ all magnets.  It does not take the place of parental supervision or common sense. It is simply a well-used instrument to address a particular hazard in a specific product when the manufacturer has been unwilling to take action. KID has joined with Consumer Federation of America and the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in supporting this action.

This is the first time in 11 years that CPSC has used its power to file a suit to require a recall—most recalls are voluntary, often on the company’s terms.  It was a bi-partisan decision of the Commission with Republican Commissioner Ann Northup joining Chair Tenenbaum and Commissioner Bob Adler in the vote. Let the CPSC commissioners know you appreciate them standing up for safety against a company that once again just wants to blame parents for their dangerous product.  You can reach the Commissioners at this link.

Melanie Mayo-Laakso


Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering.com. Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one’s best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.

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  1. John Wilkerson July 30, 2012

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